Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Alternate Title:  What do you do with a Living God?

One sentence synopsis:   General Douglas MacArthur and his deputy Bonner Fellers must investigate the role of the Emperor of Japan in perpetrating war crimes in the aftermath of World War II.

Things Havoc liked: Tommy Lee Jones has gotten into the habit recently of playing himself in every movie he's in. Your tolerance for his antics will, of course, depend on how much you like his craggy, one-liner-spouting, no-nonsense Texas schtick, but I love Jones and largely everything he's ever been in. Yes, there are occasions when he turns to smarminess and camp, such as Blown Away, Batman Forever, or The Missing, but by and large, Jones' performances attract the best lines in the script, and even when he's hamming it up (Under Siege, anyone?), I can't help but smile. In Emperor, Jones has plainly decided that if he can do one egotistical American WWII General (his riotous send-up to Patton in 2011's Captain America), then he might as well go for the repeat and play Mr. Congeniality himself, General Douglas MacArthur.

As I'm sure everyone knows, at the end of WWII, MacArthur was appointed Supreme Commander of the American occupation forces in Japan, tasked with somehow rebuilding a country that had been both figuratively and literally atomized in a way few societies had ever been. Part of this task, of course, involved deciding what should be done with the Emperor of Japan, whose guilt or innocence in the crimes committed by Japan were of less importance, overall, than what his arrest or exoneration would mean politically, both in Japan and out of it. Though MacArthur himself wisely desired to leave the Emperor in place as a means of placating the national sensibility of Japan, the position in Washington was far more inclined towards vengeance or justice, depending on how you looked at it. MacArthur thus appointed one of his deputies, General Bonner Fellers, to investigate the role of the Emperor in starting and prosecuting the war, and to recommend what should be done with both the Emperor and the Imperial system itself.

To say this issue was complicated is understating the matter, and fortunately, the movie is not shy about diving into all of the complexities attendant involved in it. Generals and Field Marshals and High Chancellors of the Privy Council are identified and interviewed and interrogated in dizzying succession. Each one has his own perspective to bring to bear on just how the war began and who (or what) was responsible for the terrible things that happened within it. Our window into the investigation is General Fellers, played by Matthew Fox of Lost fame. I hated Lost (a TV show whose title adequately described the predicament of its own writing staff), and a cursory glance at Fox' movie career (his last two films were Speed Racer and Alex Cross) does not fill me with confidence. That said, Fox is at least decent here, playing a Japanophile returning to the land that long-fascinated him to find it in ashes at the hands of his own nation. Neither vitriolic nor apologetic, Fellers' conversations with the various officials he meets with as he tries to find some reason to exonerate the Emperor are the best parts of the film, particularly his conversations with General Kajima (Toshiyuki Nishida), a senior Japanese general staff officer whose self-conscious analysis of the Japanese cultural mindset is a highly perceptive exploration of what led Japan to do the things, war-related or otherwise, that it did.

Things Havoc disliked: I've had comments from readers of these reviews that they are tired of me getting on a soapbox and rambling about some political or historical issue that I felt was handled incorrectly in this film or that one. These people are encouraged to stop reading this review now.

No, I'm not about to condemn this film and all its works, far from it. Given the contentiousness of the subject matter, it actually does amazingly well in portraying the complexities of a worldwide war. But particularly given Japan's less than stellar history in facing up to the actions of its armed forces in WWII, there are still some issues here that need to be addressed. For one thing, while it's true that Pearl Harbor inflamed American opinion to a level not seen again until 9/11, it is not true that the war crimes tribunals in post-war Japan began and ended with culpability for the Pearl Harbor raid. Pearl Harbor was a sneak attack, and pissed a lot of people off, but it was not a war crime. The Bataan Death March, the indiscriminate massacre of POWs and civilians by the hundreds of thousands, these were the war crimes for which men hanged after the war, and to frame the discussion as one of America seeking vengeance for Pearl Harbor alone without ever mentioning these events is to show a very narrow interpretation of what actually happened in that war. Similarly, a flashback to before the war mentions that the Japanese went to war because of the American oil embargo, without mentioning the by then ten year war with China that Japan was mired in, the war that had already brought on the Rape of Nanking, the destruction of the US gunboat Panay, and which was the proximate cause of the oil embargo. Yes, American policy vis-a-vis Japan was hardly a model of reason and color-blindedness. Yes, Japanese officers immediately after WWII would likely have framed the discussion in exactly these terms. But none of that changes the fact that to describe the oil embargo as something the US "did to" Japan for no reason other than arrogance or racism is to completely shatter the truth of that war. And given the way that war is typically presented in Japan nowadays, that's not a neutral act.

But to return to the subject of the movie itself, the problem here is that the reason none of the above is discussed is because the film has to make room for a love story, told entirely through flashback, between our main character and a Japanese woman he meets at college a full decade before the war. This woman, played by Eriko Hatsune, serves literally no purpose in the movie other than to provide a hackneyed attempt at personal tragedy within the context of the massive, overwhelming catastrophe that has befallen Japan, as Fellers searches for her in the aftermath of the war's devastation and confronts the fact that the war he participated in may have killed the woman he loved. Tragic though this sounds on paper, it's never addressed in the film in anything but the most perfunctory, insensitive manner, as Fellers howls in agony about his lost love to Japanese adjutants whose families, cities, and entire nation have been burnt to ashes. Worse yet, though Hatsune does her best with the material she's given, Fox has no idea how to play a romantic lead, and comes across sounding like a whiny teenager annoyed that the world is not reshaping itself to suit his wishes. Given that Fellers has been established as an expert on and aficionado of Japanese culture from the get-go, and that his sympathies lean clearly towards sparing the Emperor if humanly possible (this much is established within the first five minutes), there is simply no need to occupy a third of the movie's run-time with this useless subplot.

Final thoughts:    I sort of admire Emperor more than I like it. The decision to spare Hirohito (spoilers?) and retain the Imperial system, albeit in the limited, constitutional form it occupies today, was one of the single most important moments of the post-war era, and MacArthur's stint as governor of occupied Japan remains, in my opinion at least, his finest hour. Towards the end, as the movie builds up to the famous meeting of Hirohito and MacArthur, from whence the photograph of the Emperor and the General emerged, it finally begins to gain some momentum, and build towards a sense of actual historical importance. And yet the movie overall seems like a wasted opportunity to actually delve into the issues that surrounded the war and its aftermath. Maybe it's impossible to fully explore a topic like this in 98 minutes, and I've read reviews that complained about the dryness of the subject and the lack of any human material to lighten it up. But these reviews of mine are not some objective marker of quality, but my reaction to the film, and I found that I could have stood a lot more complexity, and a lot less obligatory-love-story.

I've been accused before of filling my reviews with too much pro-American nationalistic sabre-rattling. I will, no doubt, be accused of this again. But it's not really a pro or anti-American slant that I object to here, but the fact that the causes and course of the greatest war in history are by necessity going to be a highly complicated subject. That doesn't mean that a movie of finite duration is evil for presenting a simplified view of the subject. But neither does it mean that you can get away with pretending the simplified version is all there is to it.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful

Alternate Title:  The Wonderful Wizard of Schlock

One sentence synopsis:   A carnival magician is transported to the magical land of Oz, where he must fulfill a prophecy to destroy the Wicked Witch.

Things Havoc liked: Say what you will about this movie's qualities, it has an awesome title.

L Frank Baum's Oz series is a never-ending source of astonishment to me, if only because of the sheer bulk of the thing. I knew only that there was a book and the classic movie made therefrom, but it turns out Baum wrote no fewer than fourteen Oz books, with another forty-odd being published by a host of authors afterwards, which would appear to make Oz the fantasy equivalent of Lovecraft (there's a crossover I'd like to see). Having never seen a thing from all this material save of course for the 1939 Judy Garland movie, I could only assume that this prequel is derived from canonical sources, and that given everything here, the film-writers were free to plunder a near-infinite quantity of material for their adaptation of what happened before Dorothy found the red shoes.

Some adaptations, reboots, or sequels, don't even seem to be aware of the existence of their previous work. No such difficulties here. The opening sequence of the film, the first 30 minutes or so of it, is a beat-for-beat remake of the opening for Wizard of Oz. We are introduced via a sepia-toned crop-formatted sequence to a series of characters that we will never see again for the rest of the film, but whose actors and voices will follow us into the land of Oz itself. This transitions, following a tornado, into a wonderful technicolor (or in this case, 3D) panorama, showcasing the miracles of modern film-graphics. Though I saw the movie in 2D, 3D and the latest digital effects are here intended to stand in for the miracle that was color in 1939, but the design doesn't just pile images on us. Backdrops are created to look rather uncannily like the expansive matte paintings of yesteryear, generally with more success than failure, while the world has a vibrancy and broad, pastel palette that one doesn't often see, even in this age of oversaturated CG.

Though the movie is theoretically about the Wizard (more on him later) the focus is oddly enough on the three witches Glinda, Evanora, and Theodora, of various, shifting allegiances good or evil. A fair amount of time is spent establishing the three of them, particularly Evanora, played by Rachel Weisz. Easily the best actor in the film (helped by getting the best material), Weisz's associated antics are the most realistic (not an attribute in high supply around Oz) and the easiest to follow. Though she hams it up when necessary, she provides a nice sheen of grounding to a story that could very easily fly completely to pieces. Several of the smaller details are appreciated as well. A visit to a village made entirely of porcelain results in the Wizard finding a small girl made of china, who joins the inevitable "party" as they make their way towards destiny. The China Girl verges on annoying at times, but the movie manages to keep her bearable, while the effects used to produce her are, in this case at least, genuinely fascinating, putting aside the big-budget spectacle in favor of real texture and sharpness to a fictional character.

Things Havoc disliked:  You may have noticed that I've finished with the stuff I liked without discussing the main character, most of the rest of the cast, the writing, story, and cinematography. I think you know why.

First of all, what is Sam Raimi doing here? I understand the desire to branch out, but this is so far from Raimi's strengths that I cannot for the life of me figure out what he was thinking. Raimi cut his teeth on low-budget horror-schlock such as Evil Dead, Army of Darkness, or Drag me to Hell before breaking into the superhero business with the original Spiderman trilogy. I love these movies, but none of them are anything like Wizard of Oz, and whoever decided that Raimi, who never met a slapstick routine he didn't like, should be given the keys to a reboot of a 70-year-old fantastical wonderland classic should have their damned heads examined. Raimi, characteristically, fills the movie with wacky pratfall nonsense, particularly in the first half when he simply stops the movie for about ten minutes so that the 3D audience can get their money's worth. When things aren't being thrown at the screen, we instead get pratfalls and slapstick, not perhaps to the extent of the Transformers atrocities, but plenty. Many of these involve Tony Cox (of Bad Santa and the Epic Movie series) or Bill Cobbs (the poor filmmaker's Morgan Freeman), neither of whom belong anywhere near a movie about Oz.

But Cox and Cobbs are secondary actors. Let's talk about the main actors, such as James Franco, playing Oscar Diggs, a carnival magician turned Wizard-savior. I respect the hell out of Franco's absurd commitment to his craft and truly mad work and study schedule he follows religiously, but I've never liked him in damn near any movie he's been in, not even movies widely regarded as tours-de-force (127 Hours, for instance). His work in the Spiderman films was among the low points of the series, and he singlehandedly ruined Rise of the Planet of the Apes for me with his laconic, wooden style, a style he carries over, I'm sad to say, into this film. It's not that Franco's horrible, he's really not, but he can't act worth a damn beyond his usual vaguely-stoned, detached schtick, and while there's roles that works for, I assume, this is not among them. There's no real sense of wonder (or for that matter, sincerity) from Franco's performance, to the point where, when the movie calls for him to play the actual Wizard of Oz, complete with floating smoke-head, pyrotechnics, and fiery wrath, he comes across sounding like a parent trying to scare their five-year-old into thinking there's a ghost in the closet (Oooooooo! I'm the big bad Wizard of Ozzzzzz!). Granted, the screenplay does him no favors, sending him on a boring, predictable rote-telling of the "hero's journey", wherein he must learn to overcome his greed and be the good person he always was etc etc... But even pedestrian material can be elevated by a great performance, and Franco's not up to the task.

Neither, by the way, are Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis, playing the other two witches. I haven't seen Kunis since Black Swan, and based on this performance, I'm in no hurry for the next encounter. To describe her character fully would enter the realm of spoilers, but suffice to say she spends the majority of the movie either making a pastiche-quality attempt to imitate a classic character from the original film, or creeping out the rest of the cast and the audience with a weird, disjointed performance. The best thing I can say about her character involves a makeup effect. Williams, meanwhile, playing Glinda the Good, is caught helplessly between the roles of "mentor who sees the true potential in our hapless protagonist" and damsel in distress, possessing neither the necessary gravitas for the former role, nor the proper chemistry with Franco for the latter one. The result is an uneven, bland performance, uninteresting even when the scriptwriter decides to steal the wizard duel from Fellowship of the Ring wholesale and present us with a witch's duel which, on paper, should work, but thanks to its inept blocking and terrible pacing, simply does not. The best that can be said of Zach Braff meanwhile, who voices a winged monkey that joins Oz on his journey, is that he doesn't stoop to Jar-Jar Binks levels of annoyance. But then that's hardly glowing praise.

Final thoughts:    That's really the story of Oz the Great and Powerful. There's nothing wrong with a fresh look at Oz in principle, but neither Raimi, nor these actors, nor the screenwriters seem to have had any real ideas of substance to bring to it. Even Danny Elfman's score is instantly forgettable, not even attempting to approach Herbert Strothart's fantastic contribution to the original. Mired in modern contrivances and lacking any genuine charm, the movie simply has nothing to offer beyond a tired tramp through a thin knock-off of a classic film. Not being an obsessive fan of the original, I can't exactly cry betrayal over this tepid remake, but if you're looking for a movie to recapture some of the magic of the original Wizard of Oz, then I'm afraid this one's nothing but smoke and mirrors.

Final Score:  4/10

Friday, March 22, 2013

Alternate Title:  The Power of Positive Thinking

One sentence synopsis:   A young Chilean advertising producer is asked to help run the campaign to vote down Augusto Pinochet's regime in the plebiscite of 1988.

Things Havoc liked: I've been waiting for a movie like this, I think. One that deals with the actual business of getting people to vote the way you want them to, come hell or high water. What methods you use to convince people to take action, even in defense of their own presumed best interests, are not always as simple as the straightforward polemics that one hears from talking heads and pundits. The mechanics of winning an election, whatever the subject or conditions, are fascinating to me, and thus I was predisposed to like this movie from the start.

For those who've never heard of it, No is a movie from Chile, set in the late 80s, when the rule of Augusto Pinochet had long-since solidified into a sort of society-wide apathy. In response to escalating pressure from abroad to legitimize his regime, Pinochet decided in 1988 to hold a plebiscite to determine whether or not he should remain in power for another eight years. Both the government and the opposition would get television time in the days running up to the election to present their cases, which is where our main character comes in. Rene, a comfortably middle-class advertising director, with a young son and an ex-wife who is considerably more politically radical than him, is gradually brought into the forces of the "No" camp, and asked to craft for them a political campaign to stamp out Pinochet forever.

And what a task he has ahead of him. Beyond question, the element of this film I loved the most was the sheer "reality" of it all. Rene's co-workers are an eclectic collection of dissidents of all sorts, radicals, moderates, socialists (the repeated insistence on ever-more rarefied terms to avoid the word 'communism' become hilarious), exiles, indigenous rights activists, students, lawyers, anarchists, the works. Merely getting them all to agree to participate in the referendum in the first place is an exercise in near-maddening futility, as fifteen years of bitter resentments are not easily set aside in the service of actually "winning". The key issue is Rene's strategy, which is to play up the positive aspects of freedom and democracy rather than yet another kludgy sermon on the evils of Pinochet. Yet when he unveils this presentation to the assembled party leaders, one of them stands up and violently denounces him and his team as collaborators who wish to "marginalize" the suffering he and his people have undergone. Refusing to hear even a word edgewise, he tells Rene to fuck himself and storms out of the building, never to be seen again. I have met these people, people so blinded by the bitterness of their own political grudges that they refuse to allow the subject of the political conversation be anything besides the evil done to them, willing to brand anyone who simply wants to win as a traitor. Yet doggedly, Rene sticks to his message, that the only possible way to galvanize a people so brutalized by Pinochet for so long is to give them a vision of a future worth seeing. Perhaps it's just a personal reaction, but I found the character, and the voluminous flack he receives from every side (radical, moderate, and reactionary), highly compelling. Though a liberal opposed to Pinochet, Rene's exhaustion with those among the leftists who want to do nothing but complain about Pinochet to one another is palpable. "I'm sick of your fucking denunciations" he shouts at one point to an aide who suggests holding another press conference to condemn the government. It's a line I could well have uttered.

The movie is shot on what looks like either 8mm film or VHS tape, giving it a grainy, washed out look, with an editing structure that cuts rapidly between scenes without missing a beat in whatever conversation was being had. The result almost resembles found footage at times, and blends seamlessly well into the whole lunatic design and feel of the late eighties (a scene where Rene and his young son sit in front of their brand new microwave and watch it heat soup made me smile). The style lends itself to a highly-realistic feel, helped in no small part by the character relationships as established and presented. Rene's boss at the ad agency, Luis, is a conservative supporter of the government, who eventually winds up working for the rival "Yes" campaign. Yet rather than the expected scene wherein the two characters rupture with one another amidst fireworks and drama, the two continue to work together perfectly normally outside the campaign, despite Luis' ever-escalating attempts to cajole, bribe, or even plead with Rene to stop working for the opposition. At one point Rene responds to an ever-escalating series of bribes all with "No, fire me", fully aware that Luis cannot and will not fire him, as of course is Luis. What might sound like melodrama is made almost comedic by the fact that the conversation is taking place on set of an advertisement shoot, with both parties being interrupted every ten seconds by actors or lighting technicians as they try to do their jobs. Similarly, when Rene's radical ex-wife mocks him as a stooge of the government for even believing Pinochet will allow the referendum at all, the result is not an impassioned speech or a drag-out fight, but the sort of sudden subject shift that naturally comes from two people who know one another well enough to know what the other is going to do and say.

Things Havoc disliked: Of course, refreshing as this style is, it does leave us with the ugly fact of just why most movies spice everything up with drama and confrontation. Removing all of the interpersonal conflict (or muting it down to a nearly-invisible level) doesn't render the film boring, but it does leave the filmmakers with something of a quandary as to what they can actually show us for the two hours this movie runs. Their answer, by and large, is political ads, most of which I must assume were lifted directly from the actual campaigns in question. These ads are interesting, in a sort of weird retro-style, but only to a point. Around halfway through, the movie freezes the characters altogether in favor of an unending succession of three different types of scenes: Scenes of politicians and activists (opposition and government alike) discussing or filming their respective ads, scenes of those ads showing, and reaction shots of the characters watching the ads of the other side in silence. These scenes contain interesting little moments (the government ads often look shoddy because none of the first-rate choreographers or artists will work for them), but given that the thrust of both sides' arguments is established early on in the movie (Democracy is Fun vs. Chaos without Pinochet), it's hard to shake the feeling that the movie is spinning its wheels through a fair portion of it. This tendency is re-enforced with the addition of several enormous (five+ minute) steadicam shots of Rene walking through a "situation" of some sort. When that situation is a brutal government crackdown on an opposition demonstration, the result is tension and interest, but not so much when it's him walking through a celebrating crowd or an advertisement set

Final thoughts:    This isn't a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, No is one of the better films I've seen on the subject, effortlessly cutting through the pretensions and story "dressing" that so many films like it fall prey to. But these lengthy, almost empty stretches of film really strike me as a wasted opportunity. At the end of the movie (spoiler alert), when Rene returns to work, unchanged in circumstance save for a brief mention at a pitch meeting that he was associated with the No campaign as a sort of resume point, the intention (I think) is to show how the election, big as it was, did not instantly change people's lives. Yet in showing no consequences to any of the decisions that the characters made, it makes that point too well. An election happened, a dictator was deposed, the sun came up the next day, and the world went on. Perhaps that's how the world works, but if the subject was so inconsequential, why make a movie about it in the first place?

Good material sells itself. But a filmmaker has to have the courage to present his topic as worthy of the audience's time.

Final Score:  7/10

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Gatekeepers

Alternate Title:  The Men on the Wall

One sentence synopsis:   The six retired heads of the Shin Bet discuss the nature of Israel and Palestine's enduring conflict.

Note from the Author: This movie, and for that matter, this subject, defies facile divisions. As such, rather than review the movie in my traditional method, I will simply be expressing such thoughts as I have regarding it and its subject matter.

It has been years, literal years, since I heard anything reasonable said on the subject of Israel and Palestine. Mention Israel, or for that matter Judaism in these parts, and you will more likely than not be treated to a virulent diatribe regarding the putrid evils of the state of Israel, all who support it, and if you are unlucky, Jews in general. And should one go to states such as Texas or Georgia, the mere suggestion that Israel is deserving of criticism will be met with violent opposition from those whose rejection of the Palestinians and all their works approaches almost religious levels of fervor. I have seen and heard the most horrific things being said to those who dared offer their opinions on the subject, and heard in turn truly vile distortions of reality, common sense, and human decency offered up in the guise of "analysis" of the situation in the Holy Land, both from talking heads and ordinary people. And yet, in the midst of all this vitriol and hate, along comes a film that asks no more than our attention for a couple hours, as half a dozen old men recount to us the way things are in Israel, how they got to be that way, and where, they believe, things should go from here.

The Sherut haBitachon haKlali, more commonly known by the Hebrew acronym Shin Bet, is Israel's lesser-known, but arguably more important secret service. If the Mossad is Israel's CIA, Shin Bet is their NSA, responsible for internal security, counterterrorism, and the protection of both the populace and senior officials from whatever threats might arise. The six men that this film introduces us to are the six living former heads of the organization, representing between them an unbroken line of succession covering the twenty-four years from 1988 to 2011. Before and during this period, these men oversaw and participated in every major Israeli counter-terrorist endeavor since the Six Day War of 1967, and the film consists of them talking about these experiences, no more, no less. From the establishment of networks of informers in the West Bank to the campaign of targeted assassinations against leaders of Hamas, through scandals, Intifadas, peace accords and terrorist attacks, the movie is simply the six leaders of Shin Bet explaining themselves in as much detail as they can, buttressed only on occasion by prompts from an unseen interviewer.

And what explanations they have. The film uses the evolution of Israel's relationship with Palestine and the on-again, off-again efforts towards or away from peace as its narrative thread, and the men describing what happened do so with a complete disregard for equivocation and codewords that is almost unheard of in modern politics. "Forget about morality in a War on Terror," says one. "Find morality in terrorists first." Yet another admits, almost with a smile, that to the Palestinians, of course, he was a terrorist, something he came to understand and even accept. Descriptions of torture techniques used against recalcitrant Palestinian prisoners stray perhaps a bit from the mark, what with references to "moderate physical compulsion", yet the heads admit that there were incidents where men died under torture. Some express regret, even anger that such a thing should happen. Others defend the fact that these men were holding literal "ticking time-bomb" information that led to saving dozens of civilian lives. One outright admits "I was tired of seeing live terrorists in court." But none try to duck the issue.

It is, of course, impossible to bring up the subject of Israel without bringing ones own worldview and opinions into it, for me as much as anyone. Pro-Israeli as I am, though not to the point of rendering the state immune to criticism, I found, I will admit, much within the film to confirm what I previously believed. The movie glances at, but does not belabor the point that Shin Bet's actions, however misguided or foolish, were generally aimed at reducing or eliminating civilian deaths, primarily in Israel, but also in Palestine, particularly as the extreme right in Israel began stoking its own flames of hatred and madness. By contrast Hamas, and the other organizations Shin Bet was pitted against, were explicitly aimed at causing the maximum number of civilian deaths, Israeli or otherwise, in the service of goals related to a permanent state of war and genocide. One of the officers recounts how he met his counterpart from the PLO in a peace conference in London, and was told that the Palestinians would ultimately win, if only because "our victory is to make you and your children suffer." Two more explain how a pair of botched operations and situations (the extra-judicial killing of two Palestinian bus hijackers, and the deaths of a dozen civilians during an air strike on a Hamas cell) resulted in their immediate resignations, and the fall of the Israeli governments which oversaw them. If this was Justice, it was a thin sort for the relatives of those who died, yet the men point out that had Hamas performed such actions, the consequences would have been lionization and praise, followed by a repetition of the attacks as often as possible. That said, does the simple fact that Israel acted in a more forthright manner than Hamas (a low bar if ever there was one) excuse such actions? None of the men present think so. Several become angry, furious even, over the lapses and errors that led such things to occur. None, to my recollection, attempt to pass the buck.

Yet for all the confirmation I received from this film, I received plenty of surprises, checks, and disabusals as well. The men at the heart of the Shin Bet see a very different side of the major figures of the Middle East than the rest of us do, and I was surprised how much variance there was between these perceptions. Figures like Golda Meir, lionized by the Israeli left as a champion of peace, or Menachim Begen, who shared a Nobel peace prize for signing peace with Egypt, are considered by these men to have been completely uninterested in the Palestinians, their grievances, or the peace process. Begen is remembered by one to have bragged about how many settlements he had overseen the foundation of. Conversely, right-wing figures such as Ariel Sharon, remembered nowadays as a blood-drinking warmonger, is portrayed here as having had the most concern of any Israeli PM over the collateral effects of the targeted assassination theory. At one point, one of the Shin Bet directors speaks of pleading with him to authorize a strike to destroy much of Hamas' leadership, insisting that to hold back would be to guarantee more Israeli dead. Sharon refused to attack. Other revelations included the sheer extent of contact between Shin Bet and the relevant Palestinian security authorities, with whom they seem to have worked fairly closely, through Intifadas and even wars. "We are not helping you for your sake," one of the heads was told by a Palestinian officer. "We are doing it so that we can one day have a state." Much time is spent discussing the rise of Jewish terrorists within Israel, and Shin Bet's efforts to head them off, defusing, among other things, a plot to literally blow up the Dome of the Rock. Other attacks were not defused in time, including the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli ultranationalist, something several of them regard as their greatest failure.

Is this movie biased in favor of Israel? Maybe. I don't think so. It regards the aspirations of the Palestinian people as self-evidently justified, talks of the various upheavals and intifadas as not merely natural, but obvious and predictable outgrowths of Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories. "We as good as planned for it" says one, throwing his hands up in disgust. Is it one-sided? Yes, but the purpose is not to produce artificial 'balance', but simply to illustrate who these faceless men were, and what they think of what they did. And indeed, the opinions we receive are far more balanced than one might accept. Every single one of these former terrorist-hunting heads of intelligence, men whose lives were sought by their enemies, and who sought and took the lives of dozens and hundreds of would-be terrorists, is publicly and unequivocally in favor of advancing peace by any means. "Coming out of this job, you naturally become something of a leftist" says one, arguing in favor of shunting Israel away from its religious wing and fulfilling the two-state solution for Palestine, whatever the short-term cost. Of all six men, the one most militant in defense of his policies, also makes the claim that Israel should talk to "everyone, absolutely everyone, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, even Ahmadinejad," if it has the slightest chance of accomplishing anything. All of them make distinctions between the 'tactics' of their operations, which they claim were highly successful, and the overall 'strategy' of long-term peace, which they claim was entirely non-existent for most of their tenures. "Killing them [Hamas leaders] did reduce attacks, but did not produce moderation," admits one. The purpose of the film is not to argue for facile solutions, though some are suggested, nor to beat drums of Israeli nationalism or terrorism or any other hot button issue. It is, and remains, six men with a unique perspective, discussing their work like adults. Insofar as they can be self-critical, they make the attempt. Most men in their position would not.

Roger Ebert and I have disagreed many times on this little sounding board of mine, but in this matter we are of uniform opinion. In his review, he called the movie the most pro-Israeli film he had ever seen, specifically because it was so practical. "In recognizing Palestinian points of view (though without endorsing them), it sees Palestinian self-determination as synonymous with Israeli peace." Does it tell the whole story? Probably not. But unlike most rhetoric on the subject, it at least tells part of the story, a story that, if we are to grapple with this issue at all, deserves to be understood. In the end, we are left with six old men, whose job it has been to shield Israel from her enemies, expressing a desire to see an end to it all through dialogue and compromise. Insofar as it expresses these wishes, it is unexpectedly thus, as Ebert himself claimed, the most hopeful film I have seen on the subject.

Final Score:  7.5/10

The 2013 Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films

The 2013 Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films

The Animated candidates for short film were a strange bunch. I don't know if this is normal or not, but many of the films were extremely short, two of them at less than five minutes' runtime and one at less than two. I grant, this is the 'short' film category, and further grant that animation is hard to produce, but the program I was at had to append several 'honorable mentions', including a half-hour long British children's tale, in order to bring the whole thing up to an acceptable feature length. Regardless, without further ado...

The Longest Daycare: Yes, the Simpsons made an animated short film, and yes, it got nominated for an academy award. Go figure. This silent Simpsons sequence consists of Maggie being dropped off at her day care and suffering through the absurdities of staff and the ill-will of her nemesis, Baby Gerald. I'm aware that conventional wisdom has it that the Simpsons have been a terrible show since 1996, but Hipster-cred aside, I thought the gags worked well, like an accelerated version of vintage Simpsons (the 'Ayn Rand School for Tots' was a nice touch). It's light, it's inconsequential, it's short and it's reasonably funny. What more can one really ask for?

Fresh Guacamole: Um... what? This two-minute stop-motion short consists entirely of an unseen person making guacamole out of unconventional objects such as hand grenades, dice, poker chips, and baseballs. Clever? I suppose, but it's over in the blink of an eye, and plays more like the sort of gag a longer (though still short) film would use to establish the strange world or quirky behavior of a central character. I don't hate it, but how the hell did something this limited wind up getting a nomination?

Head over Heels: A metaphorical story about an older couple who now live in different worlds (or more specifically, by different sets of physical laws), this film managed to be fairly heartwarming despite its absurd premise and lack of dialogue. The stop motion here is extensive and expressive, and the direction gets the point of the film across easily without having to burden us with oversymbolism. The best animated films let us explore human themes through stylized methods, and that's precisely what this movie does.

Paperman: Disney had to have a contribution in the nominees of course, and it wasn't hard to spot. Paperman is the story of a man who meets a girl in a train station and tries, for complex reasons, to find her again by means of paper airplanes with a life of their own. Hand-drawn in 2D (not a common thing anymore), Paperman is wonderfully animated, with characters that are magnificently expressive, down to subtle, complicated emotional representations. The story is inventive enough, if not groundbreaking, though told almost entirely without sound, speech, or even color. It may lack some of the emotional strength of others on the list, but it serves to remind just how good professional animation can be, even when restricting itself to the practices of the past.

And the award for Best Animated Short Film goes to...

Adam and Dog: I defy anyone who has ever owned a dog to watch this film with dry eyes. A lush, gorgeously-animated film done in the Japanese style (no, I don't mean Anime), Adam and Dog is exactly what it says on the tin, a story about the first man meeting the first dog, and that which befalls them thereafter. Entirely silent (as were all the animated shorts, come to think of it), the film tells its story entirely through the skillfully drawn animation of a dog whose movements I would have thought rotoscoped were it not for the art style. Yet the strength of the film is not in its animation, but in its story, a simple tale of the ancient bond between humans and dogs, one which can transcend anything in the world, and maybe even things beyond.

The 2013 Oscar-Nominated Short Films

And now for something else completely different

Last year, around the heart of the doldrums season, I found myself faced with an impossibly poor selection of films to go and see, a time when my best options were movies like Battleship or Tyler Perry's Good Deeds. Rather than subject myself to a moviegoing experience that was guaranteed to be awful, I elected instead to go and see a collection of all of the Oscar-nominated short films, every one of which were guaranteed (I assumed) to be better than whatever crap I would otherwise be subjected to. The result was, on the whole, excellent, with several of the short films (particularly the one from Norway about the old man who massacres seagulls with a machine gun) still vivid in my mind. As such, this year, with the Doldrums in full swing and my other options consisting of films like A Good Day to Die Hard and Escape from Planet Earth, I have decided to double down, and view not only all of the Oscar-nominated shorts, but the animated shorts as well. And as the Oscars have technically not happened yet, I will therefore be giving you my personal selections for short film of the year in both categories.

Therefore, without further ado, I give you:

The 2012 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Short Film

Death of a Shadow: I'm honestly surprised to see a movie like this nominated at all. The Academy's antipathy towards anything that even hints at science fiction is well known, yet here we have a Belgian film that involves time travel, Purgatory, and steampunk soul-cameras. Death of a Shadow is about a dead Belgian soldier from WWI who must capture ten thousand souls at the moment of death for an 'art gallery' in order to return to life, all while reminiscing about a woman he met shortly before his own demise. The subject matter reads like a Steven King short story (take of that what you will), but the movie has a wonderfully creepy vibe all the way through it, without ever once segueing into actual horror. For sheer cinematographic style alone, this one gets major points.

Henry: Manipulative tripe. This french-Canadian soft-focus tearjerker about an old man who is losing his memory to what we assume is Alzheimers is a classic example of sentiment over substance. Within thirty seconds of the movie's commencement, I knew precisely what was going to happen and what revelations we were to be subjected to. Yes, the subject matter is incredibly sad, and yes, it drew tears from the audience, but the mere ability to reference sad things is not skill, and I've seen this particular subject handled with much greater pathos and care, for example in last year's superb Robot & Frank. Alzheimer's is a horrible, tragic thing, but it does not follow that the only action required to make a great movie is to gesture in the direction of Alzheimer's. Tragedy without context is just melodrama, material that beats the audience over the head without challenging or enhancing their understanding of the world. Shameful.

Buzkashi Boys: A bleak and starkly-photographed movie from Afghanistan, Buzkashi Boys is about a pair of young boys, one a blacksmith's son, one a homeless beggar, who are friends, and dream of escaping the misery of their lives by means of the ludicrously awesome sport of Buzkashi (or as I call it, 'Goat Polo'). Like Henry, this film is a major downer, but unlike Henry, it does not seek to manipulate its audience, instead simply showing them what Kabul has been reduced to after so many years of war, and the lives that its children must lead. A somber, quiet piece of haunting imagery, this movie was intended to kick-start Afghan cinema following years of suppression under Soviet and Taliban rule. Good luck.

Asad: Continuing our theme of 'children in Hell', we have Asad, a movie from Somalia, about a fisher-boy who wishes to become a pirate. Yet to my surprise, Asad was not another bleak descent into the pits of despair but a movie that showcases just how 'normal' life can be in even the most strained of circumstances. Being left behind by his pirate friends, threats by mujahadeen bandits from Mogadishu, near-starvation, these things are normal to Asad, who does not dwell upon the miseries of his life but simply lives. Unlike Buzkashi Boys, the film is shot in glorious, vibrant color, giving life to the setting and surrounding, and while some elements of the story make no sense (how did a pleasure yacht that size get to the coast of Somalia, and exactly what happened on it?), the movie doesn't dwell on such issues. The film ends very abruptly, even for a short film, but coming as it does from a failed state whose very name seems to be a byword for tragedy and evil, it was quite a revelation.

And the award for Best Live-Action Short Film goes to...

Curfew: The live action shorts this year were a collection of downers, alternating in subject matter between Alzheimer's, child-death, loss, murder, and hopelessness. At first glance, Curfew is no exception, a film about a man attempting to kill himself who is suddenly interrupted by his sister's demand that he look after the niece he is forbidden from seeing. And yet Curfew is a strange beast, poignant and tense and weird and even funny at times, despite its subject matter, expressing in the end (assuming it wishes to express anything) what the power of a single 'roadblock' can mean to one hellbent on killing himself. Though the other films (with one exception) were good movies, this one told the most complete story of them all, and a story I could easily have seen more of.

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